It was our first summer intensive at the Six8 Fellowship, a theological mentorship program for high school students on the campus of Trevecca Nazarene University. Our week was centered around a profound yet simple question, “Who is my neighbor?” For those gathered for the week, the initial answer came in the oft-quoted call to love our neighbor and so to avoid redundancy, we decided that all of us needed to hear this calling with fresh ears and see our neighbor with new eyes.
Love your neighbor as YOURSELF
We began the week with the assumption that we couldn’t ask the students to love their neighbor if they did not first know they were deeply loved by God. We started by talking about the image of God. Out of Genesis 1 and 2, we told the narrative of how collectively all of humanity was created in the one true image of God, how they were a part of that image, and how they were created very good. Unexpectedly, this was one of the hardest truths for youth to grasp. They wrestled with their own worth in God’s eyes, and we spent the first few days reiterating this truth by helping to remove the labels and stereotypes that try to mask that reality. Together, youth sought to see themselves as God sees them, as God’s children created in the divine image.
An important component of establishing that truth was having a room full of mentors and staff who were empathetic, supportive, and able to share their own stories with the young people gathered.
We could not ask young people to be vulnerable if adults would not be vulnerable first.
In short, through shared support, structure, and nurture, adults and youth made collective space to affirm each other, naming the gifts and virtues they saw in each other. They slowly kept removing the labels that sought to cover those realities by reminding one another with words and actions that said, “Yes, you, the real you, are allowed to take up space. There is plenty of room for you here at God’s table.” They were learning how to be neighbors to each other by affirming the fact that they were not defined by labels but through the theological fact that they were all created in God’s image, which provided the foundation to hear and see the other as themselves.
But, WHO is my neighbor?
After wrestling with the foundational belief of the image of God amongst each other, we moved to grapple with how to remove our preconceived stereotypes about those outside our room. To do that, we spent the rest of our week learning about difficult topics including racism, immigration, refugee resettlement, homelessness, and mass incarceration. As we did, one of the main responses we heard from youth and mentors is that such topics were rarely addressed in their churches. Even though conversations around these topics happen everywhere else in their life, many of them stated that no one had helped them approach them through the lens of faith.
That is why we approached these issues through stories–historically, theologically, and personally. Some of the most powerful moments of the week happened while youth listened to a community leader fighting racism and injustice in her neighborhood, a refugee who was still in the process of seeking asylum in Europe, and the stories of the history of civil rights in Nashville.
Instead of hearing the continual divisive narrative of us/them, they began to hear stories about individual humans–humans who bear the image of God.
In other words, issues became more than buzzwords or topics of discussion. Instead, they began hearing and seeing the stories and people of the so-called “other” as made in the image of God. With each experience and narrative, the labels and stereotypes that had blocked their ability to have a broader view and understanding of their neighbors were chipped away. Students began to actually see their neighbors, their brothers, their sisters. How could they love someone they simply couldn’t see?
Being a neighbor—the one who shows MERCY
As they listened and developed a new perspective to see and hear their neighbors, many began to feel that something had to change as questions arose: Are these neighbors being treated in the image of God? Are they being shown the inclusive communal love of God? Has room been made for them at God’s table?
It’s not that everyone gave definite answers. However, as we wrestled with ways we had all erred in the past, excluded others and ourselves from the table, and began to develop empathy for others, we were eager to extend the table invitation to others as well.
We were eager to go out and love all our neighbors because we could now see and hear our neighbors, even if we did not have all the solutions.
The mood was summarized from a popular line in a worship song from that week, “You delight in showing mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.” That mercy included in the narrative that all of us are created in the image of God had demolished any existing beliefs about who did and did not belong around the table. There was no proving or earning one’s way to the table. There was not a secret password. There was only the invitation to come and see. The table had suddenly become a lot bigger. There was plenty of room.
We learned and continue to learn a lot from these experiences and our Six8 fellows. So, we echo the same question raised. “My question now is, Who is not your neighbor?”
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